The New York Times, 10/1/04

JOHN TRAVOLTA was late for the party for his new movie, "Ladder 49," at the Four Seasons on Wednesday night, appearing in the entrance in a halo of glaring, buttery lights from the television cameras. He was flanked by a bodyguard and a press agent.

JAMES LIPTON had spent much of the evening at a table at the periphery of the room with his wife, KEDAKAI. But as Mr. Travolta made his way around the pool room, the host of "Inside the Actors Studio" came in for his close-up.

"I love you," said Mr. Lipton (at right) in a serious tone of voice to Mr. Travolta.

Mr. Lipton was face to face with the actor, or as much as one can be when you have to look up half a foot. His eyes blazed behind his square-cut glasses, his jaw was tight beneath his brown beard. He grabbed both of Mr. Travolta's hands.

"I mean I really love you," said Mr. Lipton as he stared into the actor's eyes.

Mr. Travolta's smile began to tremble, but he took a shot at giving back the love: saying how much he respected Mr. Lipton's approach, wondering why journalists were more interested in his personal life than his craft. He was not as intense as Mr. Lipton, but then, who is?

Mr. Lipton continued to stare and praise the actor with his eyes. It was time for Mr. Travolta to pull away.

But before he did, Mr. Lipton kissed Mr. Travolta - a nice, big wet one, which landed half lip, half cheek, just missing the famous dimple: SHMEARP!

Then Mr. Lipton's wife went for the full-on lip smack. SHMEARP! THE SEQUEL!

MR. SEGUE MAN, cue the Boldface Orchestra. Now let's all sing, "Can you feel the love tonight?''

As far as parties go, however, the one for "Ladder 49" - which was directed by JAY RUSSELL and stars Mr. Travolta and JOAQUIN PHOENIX as firefighters in Baltimore --was terrific.

DONNA KARAN and her young boyfriend talked with the host, JANN WENNER, and his young boyfriend. We also saw WYCLEF JEAN, who is putting together a relief program for Haiti; LIAM NEESON; DAVID HENRY HWANG; AMY SACCO; GRIFFIN DUNNE; CAROL ALT; DAN HEDAYA; MICHAEL NOURI; and CAPRICE BENEDETTI. ROBBIE ROBERTSON of The Band performed "Shine Your Light," the song he wrote for the film.

Mr. Phoenix, who is 30 and wore an inky suit, blue shirt and tie, stayed at the party only a few minutes. When we asked for an interview he said sorry, he was tired and going home. Mr. Russell, who comes from a family of firefighters, made himself available in Mr. Phoenix's place. He linked Mr. Phoenix's reticence to speak with reporters to the death of his brother, RIVER PHOENIX, who died from a drug overdose when Mr. Phoenix was 19. "I think there was a traumatic night with Joaquin where the media, just like, put a very bright light on him he never asked for," Mr. Russell said.

Mr. Travolta, however, was game, posing with fans, doing quickie interviews. We, as is our sorry lot, were a quickie.

It is true that we, too, could have talked to Mr. Travolta about craft.
We would have paused, given him a serious look, looked out at the audience - which would be difficult to do because we don't have an audience - then hit him with the question:

That shot in "Saturday Night Fever'' where you thrust one hand into the air and stand feet splayed, in that white suit. I think we can all agree that's become an American icon. Now, were you thinking: Do I raise the arm as high as it can go, or do I thrust it at an angle? You're a rather tall man, 6'2" am I correct? Ummm. So your arm, held upward, would make you 7 feet. Mmmm. Quite an imposing stance.

What we mean to say is, were you aware, as you were thrusting that arm upward, that this move would achieve the importance that it did, becoming as it were emblematic of the disco period, the late 70's and early 80's, of those ceilings with the whirling lights. (You're such a beautiful actor. Kiss me on the mouth again.)

But we are who we are, and what we wanted to know was about Mr. Travolta's airplane. He's a pilot, parks his own 707 in his yard in Ocala, Fla. He's been flying the director and stars on this publicity tour, arriving at Newark on Tuesday in a tropical storm.

So how did the star's managers feels about that, insurancewise?
"The studio asked me to do it," Mr. Travolta said. He laughed. "Remember I fly for Qantas'' -- that's as a "roving ambassador of good will,'' folks, not hauling passengers to Sydney -- "and they're the finest and most trusted airline in the world.''

Right, a money-saving maneuver. But how many hours do you have? Because frankly, if a guy hasn't had 10 years as an Air Force pilot, it makes us nervous.

"Five thousand hours, mostly in jets," Mr. Travolta said. "About 1,000 in airline-style jets, about 3,000 in a large corporate-type jet."

Very cool. And how do you identify yourself to the tower?

"707JT," Mr. Travolta said. "And they say, 'Is this John Travolta,' and I usually say 'yes,' and they tell me their favorite movie, blah blah blah. Sometimes they do me a favor and give me a direct routing or something."

O.K., great. That does it for us.

What do you think of John Travolta flying everybody around, we asked PAUL SHAFFER.

"I heard he flew it through a storm, too,'' Mr. Shaffer said. "And I understand he'd been doing P.R. all day, so it makes it more impressive."

With Lily Koppel

To read Guy Flatley's 1976 interview with John Travolta, click here.